Thursday March 14, 2013

PORTLAND, Maine -- With their quota cut by 74 percent and warnings that the Gulf of Maine shrimp population was in bad shape due to warm ocean temperatures, fishermen expected this to be a rough shrimp season.

But it’s turned out to be an even bigger bust than anybody anticipated. The shrimp catch has been meager, resulting in a short supply for processors and higher prices for consumers. The season is on course for the smallest harvest in more than 30 years, and possibly since 1978 when the fishery was shut down altogether.

When regulators set the quota for this season, fishermen thought the 1.4 million-pound catch limit would be fished up quickly. Instead, the catch has been so paltry that regulators are now allowing boats to fish seven days a week instead of two they were initially allotted. They’ve also removed the 800-pound trip limit for shrimp trappers.

Gary Libby, a fisherman in Port Clyde, said he caught 800 pounds of the small, sweet shrimp on his best day this winter. Last year he averaged 2,000 pounds a day.

"We were expecting it to be bad going in, but we weren’t expecting it to be as bad it was," he said.

Shrimp provide a small but important fishery for New England fishermen each winter. About 90 percent of the annual harvest is caught by Maine boats, with New Hampshire and Massachusetts fishermen accounting for the rest.

The fishery historically has gone through boom-and-bust cycles, with the catch fluctuating sharply depending on the status of the shrimp population.

Fishermen netted and trapped about 13.3 million pounds of shrimp in 2011 and 5.3 million pounds last year. This year, though, regulators slashed the quota after scientists warned that the Gulf of Maine shrimp population had plunged, most likely due to warming ocean temperatures.

The going’s so bad that fishermen have had trouble finding enough shrimp to even approach the catch limit. The season officially ends April 12, but many have already hung up their nets for the season.

In the season’s first seven weeks through March 8, fishermen had caught about 597,000 pounds -- less than half the allowable catch.

Dave Osier, a fisherman and shrimp dealer in South Bristol, said his boats have been catching about 100 pounds an hour this season, a fraction of the 500 pounds per hour they catch in a good year. As of late, the catch rate has been about 50 pounds an hour, he said.

"It’s just dribbling in," he said. "But the price is a $1 more a pound this year. That’s helped a little."

With so little shrimp, retail prices have risen.

At Harbor Fish Market in Portland, hand-peeled shrimp meat has been selling for $10.99 to $11.99 a pound, up from $7.99 to $8.99 last year, said co-owner Mike Alfiero.

But customers understand that shrimp is a volatile fishery with up-and-down catches and prices, he said.

"There’s been very little resistance on the consumer side," he said.

Libby, in Port Clyde, said the bad season has rippled into the community, providing less work and money for shrimp-peeling plants, people who sell shrimp from the back of their pickup trucks, wharf workers, truck drivers and fuel dealers.

A lot of fishermen, he said, are convinced there won’t even be a shrimp season next year.

"They’ll either be unemployed, find another job or fish for something else," he said.